Let’s say you just stepped off a 13-hour flight from New York. You don’t sleep on planes. Throughout the flight, you’d been going back and forth between bourbon and black coffee. Your mind is rattled. It’s 2:15 am. Dubai International Airport is quiet, immobile, cloaked in blue-white fluorescence.
The past few weeks are a fuzzy Polaroid. Czech. Slovakia. Hungary. Austria. Flights. Trains. DC, upstate, Brooklyn, the Lower East Side.
The immigration line is long and sluggish.
The UAE is a liberal, forward-thinking society. A theocracy of sorts, but increasingly democratic and ultimately more capitalistic than anything else—Donald Trump’s constipatory grimace is practically stamped on the currency. Like him, Dubai goes bankrupt every few years and then must beg from Abu Dhabi, the responsible older brother. That’s how the Burj Dubai came to be rechristened the Burj Khalifa, after a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family.
Dubai. You see women covered head to toe in black, but they’re in lingerie shops buying crotch-less panties. It’s illegal to kiss on the street, but the brothels are packed and streetwalkers prowl the city with impunity. If a cop catches you having sex on the beach—the verb, not the noun—he won’t arrest you. He’ll just tell you to knock it off and scram. If you’re an Emirati, anyway, or a Westerner. If you’re from a fiscally underperforming nation, well, you may get locked up. Still, if you’re a rich Australian, and you flip off an Emirati who’s driving drunk and trying to run you off the road, you’ll be jailed, fined and deported. The Emirati will, in all likelihood, not be charged.
You hold your daughter’s hand as the immigration line crawls forward. She’s three and comporting herself admirably. A very large family from the Indian Subcontinent is traveling with gargantuan homemade luggage. Fifteen, maybe 20 cardboard boxes—the size of picnic tables—wrapped in duct tape, twine, bedsheets.
The line is thinning. You nudge the bags forward.
Hundreds of laborers sleep on the floor. Unattended bags are scattered across the terminal, but no one seems to mind. Security is sluggish. Uniformed guards blow smoke rings at the No Smoking sign. Soldiers in jaunty red berets fumble with their rifles like preteen boys at the middle school dance, unsure where and how to pin a corsage.
You’re next. Almost home.
Your wife walks across the metal-detecting portal. Your daughter giggles through. The guards don’t seem to be watching. You load bags onto the conveyor belt and watch them float into the x-ray box. You skulk through security.
Your wife is holding your daughter, half asleep against her shoulder. You grab the first bag. You wait for the second. Your wife is walking away, footsteps clacking on slick marble tiles. You can picture the elevator in your building, the warm hallways. You are already asleep in your own bed, head pressed against the familiar pillow.
That’s all it takes. A syllable. A sentence without structure or syntax. A single morpheme.
“You must come with me.”
You signal to your wife. You both shrug.
“Come. Into my office.”
The man, Khalifa, is lackadaisical in word, manner and body language. Nonetheless, you have been summoned to a back room for questioning by a soldier in a Middle Eastern state. It’s not your most peaceful moment.
On the plus side, you’re alert now, as if you hadn’t flown across the Atlantic and been awake for 23 hours.
There’s no time or private space to confer with your wife but you agree, through a semaphore of nods, squints and frowns, to play dumb. Admit nothing.
“Where are we going?” your daughter asks. “Is the man going to give us a present?”
You guess he will not.
As you lean the bags against a wall, and sit, you put on the face you’ll need to meet the face that’s about to interrogate you. You forgot what was in the bag. A few weeks in Middle Europe and North America made you forget the quirks and prohibitions of the Emirates. You packed with insufficient scrutiny.
“We found something unsuitable in your bag.”
Khalifa’s eye momentarily flickers. His left arm twitches. A sheet of typing paper lies on his desk. There is a lump down the middle. The paper conceals the offending object, much like the Shailahs, worn by Emirati women, enshroud their un-seeable faces. You decide to keep this analogy to your yourself.
You think of the colleague who returned, a few summers before, from a trip to Holland. A forgotten quarter-joint stuffed into the pocket of balled-up dirty jeans. The police dogs sniffed it out. A few months later he called the Dean from jail. “After they let me out,” he asked, “Should I report to work?” The Dean didn’t answer. He was too busy laughing. Eighteen months later, the security police brought your colleague to the airport for deportation. They generously bought him a one-way ticket home, waited until his flight came, and watched as he boarded the plane. They had emptied his bank accounts, sold his car, confiscated furniture and appliances. You picture your own face on this man’s body.
The room shrinks. The air is sucked out. The chair wobbles. You feel dizzy. Colors and shapes transform. Your wife shoots you a look, so you clear your throat and straighten up.
“What did you find?” your wife asks.
Khalifa, thoughtfully scratching his beard, says nothing. He makes eye contact with your wife, then quickly looks away. He removes the beret and folds it into the epaulette on his left shoulder. He is uncomfortable. This relaxes you.
“Why are we here? We’re tired. We need to get home.” Your wife uses a firm, unwavering voice.
Khalifa fidgets, scowls, deploys an ambiguous nonverbal sound. He removes the paper from the forbidden object: a cylindrical battery-operated relaxing mechanism.
“Yeah? So what?” Your wife’s neutral mid-Atlantic voice disappears. She’s a Brooklyn girl from several generations of Brooklyn girls. A small stocky man with a greasy pompadour and switchblade walks down the red carpet of her tongue. Johnny Brooklyn. He’ll be speaking for her now. “It’s a massager. Perfectly legal. I know the rules.”
She looks at you, shrugs, eh-what-gives?
You momentarily close your eyes, breathing deeply. You will tell the lies Khalifa needs to hear and you will make yourself believe them. There’s nothing else to be done.
“It’s just a massager, sir. As far as I know, it’s a perfectly ordinary, acceptable thing to bring through customs.” You adjust your glasses, adopting a professorial air. “If we’ve done something wrong, we’re both very sorry, but I honestly have no idea what the problem is.”
“Look, my husband has a bad back. He needs this.” Your wife points to the object. Khalifa recoils in horror. “You can ask his doctor.”
You rub your trapezius and medial deltoid, wearing a pained expression.
“Can we go now?” your wife asks. “Our daughter needs her sleep. I don’t even get what this is all about. I mean, the massager is a medical device. We can get a doctor’s note?”
“It’s perfectly legal,” you say.
“Not in this particular…shape,” Khalifa says, re-concealing the object with its paper veil.
You don’t have the nerve to say that the object’s shape is irrelevant, to continue feigning ignorance. You are glad he doesn’t ask why the object was stuffed into a sock, rolled up in a t-shirt, crammed inside a shoe, bundled with a sweater.
Your wife is less uneasy. “I don’t know what the shape has to do with anything.”
You’re trapped in an absurdist drama, by Ionesco or Beckett, that could only be performed in Dubai. Back home, the play would never open. It wouldn’t find backing. In Saudi, next door, the play would be quite short. It would be a tragedy in one scene. It would not be softened by comic texture.
“Can we go now?” your wife asks. “Or should we talk to your supervisor?”
“You may go.” Khalifa is almost completely hidden behind his hands. He slumps into the folds of a leather desk chair.
“Thanks.” Your wife reaches for the object.
“No. This must stay.” Khalifa’s confidence has been resuscitated. “If you come back during the day, pass by the administrative office, submit paperwork…then, maybe.”
You take your daughter’s hand, a wheelie bag, and walk out. Your wife follows. The tension pours off you in the hallway. You wipe sweat from your forehead. You’re glad to be going home. You will not return for the paperwork, but you do wonder what kind of form they would use.